The Mystery of “Pentecost”

hawkinson pentecost.jpg

This is Tim Hawkinson’s wonderful piece entitled “Pentecost”.

Hawkinson′s work is mostly an artistic engagement with material, technique, and process. Some of his pieces are mechanized or involve sound. He is renowned for creating complex sculptural systems through surprisingly simple means. His installation “Überorgan”—a stadium-size, fully automated bagpipe—was pieced together from bits of electrical hardware and several miles of inflated plastic sheeting.

Hawkinson’s fascination with music and notation can also be seen here in “Pentecost,”  in which the artist tuned cardboard tubes and assembled them in the shape of a giant tree. On this tree the artist placed twelve life-size robotic replicas of himself, and programmed them to beat out hymns at humorously irregular intervals.

The massive tree with its twelve 12 Gumby-shaped figures sprawling on its giant branches has a motion detector which senses the presence of viewers; whereupon the figures begin striking the tree like a drum, each using a different body part.

The title suggests a spirituality which Hawkinson has not specified, though Howard Fox has called Hawkinson’s mechanized creations “metaphysical machines.”

Metaphysical? In what sense, then, can this marvellous piece deserve the title given?

A few clues may be drawn from the account of Pentecost in Acts 2. It begins thus:

“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” (Acts 2:1-2)

Does the gallery represents the “place” where the connected figures are “all together“? (We are told that 120 were gathered there. Do the 12 figures stand for the 120? Or does 12 stand for the 12 apostles?). And “suddenly” upon your entry into the “place” -via motion detector!- the sound begins to fill the entire house. The word for “wind” in Greek is the same as the word for “Spirit,”  so there is an interplay between what is happening in the gallery as a commentary upon the Pentecost narrative.

The narrative continues:

They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues  as the Spirit enabled them.”

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken…”

This is where Hawkinson’s “commentary” becomes interesting. His installation reflects both the unity of the structure and the diversity of the figures. All the figures are animated by the same “Spirit” (wind) but act in different ways, speaking a different “language.” This requires interpretation, or the viewer/listener will simply remain “bewildered” and not understand. In the Acts narrative the crowd misinterpet the phenomenon, thinking the apostles drunk (Acts 2:13). “Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’”  

To Hawkinson, the coming of the Spirit would seem to be understood as a celebration of unity and diversity, where both point back not to the glory of the individual but to the maker (or rather “Maker” ) himself. The wind blows through the whole, the same animating Spirit, like electricity through a circuit, producing variegated effects (heat, light, power) but our total understanding is limited.

As Jesus said: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’” (John 3)


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